January 27, 2021: The 76th Anniversary of the Liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau in 1945
Welcome to our newsletter for readers of The Fires of Lilliput, Shosha Mordechai's epic story of courage, suffering, and love during the Nazi siege of Poland and the Soviet invasion that followed.
76 years ago today, allied forces with the Soviet Red Army liberated the Nazi concentration camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau in Oświęcim, Poland.
This issue features information about memorials and commemorations; virtual tours of the camp itself; period photos; survivor and liberator testimony; and excerpts from The Fires of Lilliput.
The Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial Museum is live-streaming a commemorative event at the video linked above.
Individuals vs. Institutions as a Fires of Lilliput theme
Fires is largely about courageous individuals facing down the most terrible threat imaginable. Individual Jews; individual Christians; individual clergy and individual bureaucrats. Individual resisters and families.
As allied forces approach death camp Melinka, Shosha Mordechai hears a lone woman reciting a prayer she's never heard before in the nearly-deserted hospital block. Though she has help from individuals throughout her journey to this grim place, Shosha too is alone when the end nears. Like the woman she hears, Shosha will live or die on whatever courage, faith, and strength she -- and she alone -- can still muster.
Individual action is a critical part of war often lost in the rush to praise -- or decry -- the institutions behind the fighting. Individuals take initiative in ways institutions cannot -- or will not. For good and bad, nowhere was this more true than in Poland during World War II.
Shosha Mordechai has been left to die in the notorious Hospital Block at the Nazi death camp in Melinka, Poland. She has wasted down to nothing and she is certain, with all the death around her, there is no hope. She hears a woman nearby, praying in a foreign language. But the end of the prayer sounds like the way Shosha and other Jews end their prayers.
SOMEWHERE IN THE HOLLOW, SHOSHA heard a woman begin a prayer in a foreign tongue. Shosha didn’t recognize the prayer, but it was beautiful, the way it settled the void.
“Bismillaah ah-Rahman ar-Raheem
In the name of God, Most Gracious, Most Merciful
“Al hamdu lillaahi rabbil ‘alameen
Praise be to God, the Cherisher and Sustainer of the world
Most Gracious, Most Merciful
Master of the Day of Judgment.
“Iyyaaka na’abudu wa iy yaaka nasta’een.”
Thee do we worship, and Thine aid we seek.
Shosha heard the guards enter again.
They came to Shosha. She could feel their breath as they bent down to look at her. She could feel their shadows. She knew a hand was reaching out to touch her face.
“She’s got sores. Don’t touch.”
“Unless you want to burn your gloves, don’t touch them. We don’t have any other gloves.”
The guard craned his head around to see Shosha’s face. She kept her eyes open in a dead stare. She felt sick—sicker than she thought she had ever been—when the guard’s eyes met hers. She couldn’t look away, couldn’t blink, couldn’t cry, couldn’t close her eyes.
The guard pulled back. “This one’s gone.”
When the guards moved away, Shosha let her eyes close. She didn’t know whether to thank G-d or cry out for them to take her and get it over with.
She wondered why she didn’t blink and let them take her. Why should she lie here when there was no hope? Why should she lie here and die?
But even if she had wanted to call out, she could barely raise the strength to speak. So she would lie here and wait. She would live a little longer, another hour or maybe another day.
Maybe she would live a few days. She would live here alone among the dead they had left, but she would live and they would not kill her directly, with their own hands.
She would starve to death but she would die on her time. The pain of starvation was terrible but she was more used to it now and at least there would be meaning.
She heard the prayer again.
“Ihdinas siraatal mustaqeem Siraatal ladheena an ‘amta’ alaihim
“Ghairil maghduubi’ alaihim, waladaalee.
The way of those on whom Thou hast bestowed Thy Grace
Those whose portion is not wrath, and who go not astray.
It sounded like “Amein” to Shosha and she was surprised. It was almost a reflex when she said it in her mind. She heard shots again. Only three this time. The living were getting fewer and harder to find.
The USC Shoah Foundation, director Steven Spielberg's groundbreaking contribution to Holocaust research, presents a collection of testimonials from WWII liberators who served in the United States Armed Forces.
Click pic or link:
VETERANS AND LIBERATORS
Eighty-eight pounds of eyeglasses. Hundreds of prosthetic limbs. Twelve thousand pots and pans. Forty-four thousand pairs of shoes.
When Soviet soldiers poured into Auschwitz in January 1945, they encountered warehouses filled with massive quantities of other people’s belongings. Most of the people who owned them were already dead, murdered by the Nazis in the Holocaust’s largest extermination and concentration camp.
But though the camps that made up Auschwitz seemed silent and abandoned at first, soldiers soon realized they were filled with people—thousands of them, left to die by SS guards who evacuated the camps after trying to cover up their crimes. As they saw the soldiers, the emaciated prisoners hugged, kissed and cried.
“They rushed toward us shouting, fell on their knees, kissed the flaps of our overcoats, and threw their arms around our legs,” remembered Georgii Elisavetskii, one of the first Red Army soldiers to step into Auschwitz.
After five years of hell, Auschwitz was liberated at last.
THE AUSCHWITZ LIBERATION: READ THE HISTORY CHANNEL STORY
A VOICE FROM A BULLHORN roused Shosha. She lay beneath as many blankets as she could salvage. She didn’t sleep but stayed on the verge of sleep and tried to fight bad thoughts.
As allied forces approach Camp Melinka...
She had heard this word before but she did not know it. She knew conversational German but this word was not conversational.
Major Petersdorf walked between the buildings with the bullhorn. His face was dirty. He had not ironed or starched his uniform for two weeks. He had not shaved in days. He shouted the command.
Petersdorf earlier ordered Dr. Hehl to open the warehouses and when Hehl refused, the major ordered him held at gunpoint while the guards opened the stores.
“I don’t know what you hope to accomplish except to get us all hung,” Petersdorf said to Hehl.
Under Corporal Walkenburg’s watch, the guards hauled out all the cloth. They soaked shirts and pants, skirts and socks, long johns and soft hats in gasoline and piled it on flatbeds with wheels.
Now they walked from building to building, splashing wooden walls with fuel. They lit rags and threw them against the walls. They stripped the crematoria and left brick shells behind.
When Shosha smelled smoke, she remembered where she had heard the word Niederbrennen. In Warsaw, during the Uprising, SS officers yelled it to the men on the carts who went from building to building with flamethrowers and burning dross.
Shosha raised her head. She looked around the hospital block. She heard the wood creak and saw bat guano trickle from the rafters. The bats had come in through knotholes in the pine as the weather cooled.
Shosha saw an empty bird’s nest teetering overhead. A mama had raised her babies there and left the spring before. The bats left every night, but it was cold now and she hadn’t seen them.
She smelled smoke but it was outside, in other buildings.
From The Fires of Lilliput, Chapter 57
Photos: Concentration camp barracks, reportedly from Auschwitz
The most powerful Holocaust film you’ve never seen may be a lost Alfred Hitchcock documentary, writes Hanna Kozlowska for the online magazine Quartz.
"I had felt that I needed to make some contribution," Hitchcock explained.
Titled "German Concentration Camps Factual Survey,” the film was made in 1945 and shelved for 70 years. The Imperial War Museum in London restored the footage and the Museum of Jewish Heritage held a New York City premiere
"The film’s camera confronts the face of death like nothing I’ve ever seen, showing the hollowed out cheeks of a woman ravaged by hunger and sickness, the open mouth of a man drawing his last breath, the glassy, empty eyes of emaciated corpses, sprawled across the grounds of the Bergen Belsen concentration camp," Kozlowska writes.
"The film provides damning evidence of Nazi atrocities, but unlike most of its contemporaries, 'Factual Survey' also offers a message that transcends its time—the resilience of the human spirit even in the midst of utter devastation."
In typical Hitchcock fashion, the film broke new ground.
"In order to reveal that a person has been brutalized, you have to get close to the person,' explains Dr. Toby Haggith in "Night Will Fall," a 2014 documentary about the Hitchcock film. "That went against the tradition of combat cameramen."
View this short VIDEO to learn more:
The so-called "Sonderkommando photographs" are four photos reportedly taken inside Auschwitz in August 1944 -- the only such photographs ever. They are grim and graphic reminders of the dehumanizing horrors that took place inside Auschwitz and camps like it. The links below have more information.
The Sonderkommando Photographs at Faces of Auschwitz
The Sonderkommando Photographs at Jewish Virtual Library
Preserving Memory: The Conservation of Auschwitz-Birkenau
To "Never Forget" we must preserve.
Culture.Pl, the Polish history and culture magazine, presents a short film about historic preservation efforts at the former Nazi camp.
"The Auschwitz Memorial Museum Preservation Department is responsible for protecting everything that remained at the site of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp.
"With one of the most advanced conservation workshops in the world at its disposal, it employs a staff of highly qualified specialists in landmark preservation, as well as specialists in various technical fields. The work they do helps preserve the memory of those who perished there."
Watch the VIDEO here:
Survivor testimony is perhaps the most critical way to preserve memories of the Holocaust. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum has an extensive collection of surivor testimony you can view by clicking the pic or the link.
SURVIVOR REFLECTIONS AND TESTIMONIES
THE RED ARMY TROOPS passed through Melinka village. Curious villagers followed them. Father Waleska stood at his gate and watched the tanks creeping and trucks rolling and the soldiers walking in the cold. In the last truck, he thought he saw a familiar face in the early light peaking over the mountains. He opened the gate.
The smell hit the soldiers. “What is it?” They winced and gagged. “What is that?” Several troops bent over and heaved. They covered their faces with their gas masks. “I haven’t ever smelled anything like this. Ever!”
Jakub looked at the men through his mask. They halted, then moved again. A rumbling, persistent, slow-treaded slog moved toward the camp. Bullhorns demanded surrender. Guards left their posts. The Russians pressed down the gate. The stragglers watched safely from behind.
Corpses lay piled and scattered and Muselmänner stood dying. Some prisoners had escaped the boxcars, except those who were too weak. Guards lay down their arms and raised their hands.
“Stop the fires,” Kirlinovsky ordered.
His troops fanned out. They drew water in buckets and threw it on the burning buildings. From The Fires of Lilliput, Chapter 55______________________________________________________________________________
Photos: Auschwitz before and during Liberation
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